Ethiopia: Human rights defenders under pressure - International fact-finding mission


Executive summary
"Ethiopia is the headquarters of the African Union, but it is at the forefront of violating the right to freedom of expression and other universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms"1.

Although in 1991 the overthrown of the Derg and of the Mengitsu regime represented a sign of hope for democratisation in Ethiopia, the government headed by Prime Minister Mr. Meles Zenawi failed to provide a fair and free environment for respecting the professed commitment to human rights enshrined in the 1994 Constitution. While Ethiopia hosts the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa headquarters, thus taking a symbolical leadership in being the custodian of international and regional human rights conventions, the ruling power, led by the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), shows a blatant social and political intolerance, aggravated by a divisive ethnic policy, corruption, police brutality and impunity.

In this context, Ethiopian human rights defenders face numerous constraints in carrying out their activities, and remain at risk of repression, harassment and retaliation. As the international fact-finding mission mandated by the Observatory in Ethiopia from June 26 to July 3, 2004 could observe, methods to silence human rights activists seem to have changed compared to the 1990s, marked by extra-judicial killings, violence and massive arbitrary arrests and detention of defenders. The crackdown on fundamental rights and freedoms -- in particular freedoms of association, of expression and of the press -- in 2004 and early 2005 took the form of an increased institutionalisation and judicialisation: new restrictive press and NGOs laws are currently under review, and several associations faced legal actions initiated by the government and its Ministries aimed at curtailing their activities. A number of defenders remain subjected to judicial harassment on the grounds of fallacious accusations, such as Messrs. Mesfin Wolde Mariam, president of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), Birhanu Nega, chairman of the Ethiopian Economic Association, and Abate Angore, member of the executive board of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA), who are still prosecuted for facts dating back to 2001 for their outspoken position against the police violence that struck a student protest movement. In this regard, the conviction and arrest of Mr. Abate Angore on February 3, 2005, is particularly alarming.

State authorities also intended to replace independent civil society organisations by pro-governmental NGOs. This pernicious strategy, which had already been used in the 1990s against the ETA, was once more resorted to against the Ethiopian Free Journalists' Association (EFJA), whose executive board was re-elected in January 2004 by a general assembly convened by the Minister of Justice and in the absence of EFJA members. On December 24, 2004, however, the Federal First Instance Court ruled the Ministry of Justice's attempt to challenge the "genuine" EFJA's legal existence null and void - a decision that was confirmed by the Federal High Court on March 3, 2005.

Human rights defenders and associations also have to face recurrent smear and discredit campaigns orchestrated by the authorities: several reports published by the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) and denouncing human rights violations in the country gave rise to virulent reactions from the government. Freedoms of expression and of the press remain highly restrained as federal authorities very poorly tolerate criticism of their policies and denunciation of human rights abuses committed on the territory.

On May 15, 2005, Ethiopians will elect the members of the House of Peoples' Representatives (HPR), the lower chamber of the Parliament. Whilst last HPR elections held in May 2000 were marred by reported irregularities and acts of violence against opposition candidates and supporters, notably in rural areas, this national poll is of primary importance for human rights defenders, all the more that the new elected chamber will be in charge of adopting or not the above-mentioned restrictive legislations. It is to be hoped that the Ethiopian government will ensure a free and fair environment for international and human rights NGOs to monitor this poll2, and that these elections will mark a new era of respect for international human rights standards and instruments that Ethiopia ratified.


A. Mission's rationale and objectives

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) ratified the following international conventions, which create an obligation on State parties to promote and protect the rights enshrined in these instruments:

- the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1993

- the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1993

- the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination (ICERD) in 1976

- the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1991

- the Convention against Torture (CAT) in 1994

- the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) in 1998

- the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa in June 2004.

Although the rights and freedoms enshrined in these documents are reaffirmed in the 1994 Constitution, which provides for a Bill of Rights3, credible and documented evidence that Ethiopia seriously violates human rights and fundamental freedoms were brought into light in the past few years.

In an environment of declining human rights conditions, human rights defenders who fight for the respect of internationally recognised freedoms are invariably targeted by State persecution, from arbitrary arrest and detention, prosecution on fallacious grounds, torture, harassment, threats, unfair transfer or dismissal from employment, defamation, discrimination, denial of access to lawyers, to such aggravated evils as summary or extra-judicial executions.

As numerous human rights violations were denounced in Ethiopia, the FIDH and the OMCT, in the framework of their joint programme, the Observatory for the protection of human rights defenders, considered it necessary to mandate a mission to Ethiopia to investigate into defenders' situation in the country.

Since the mission was conducted, the Observatory maintained a regular follow-up on the facts and cases reported by its delegation.

The delegation's work was guided by the following goals:

- To document obstacles that inhibit the work of human rights defenders in Ethiopia, according to the rights laid out, notably in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights and Responsibilities of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and other sources of international human rights law and in international humanitarian law.

- To document the role that human rights defenders, working as independent monitors, can play in bringing peace and justice to the country.

- To explore specific and achievable recommendations to improve the ability of human rights groups to carry out their work safely and effectively.

It is hoped that this report will contribute to encourage the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia to take the necessary steps to create and maintain an appropriate, conducive environment for human rights defenders to operate freely and efficiently in the country.

B. Working methods and definitions

The delegation agreed to leave the definition of a human rights defender very wide so as to include anyone fighting for the promotion and the protection of universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms, including NGOs' members and representatives, human rights lawyers and activists, academics, intellectuals, religious leaders, trade unionists and public officials such as public prosecutors, judges and magistrates.

The United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed a Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on December 9, 1998 that places a duty on State parties to ensure that certain minimum standards or conditions exist where human rights defenders operate4. Based on the UN Declaration, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders uses the following operational definition of a human rights defender:

"Each person victim or risking to be the victim of reprisals, harassment or violations due to his or her compromise exercised individually or in association with others, in conformity with the international instruments of protection of Human Rights, in favour of the promotion and realisation of the rights recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed by international instruments".

The Observatory's delegation could identify a large range of individuals and organisations as human rights defenders in Ethiopia, among which the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), the Ethiopian Free Journalists Association (EFJA), the Ethiopian Teachers Association (ETA) and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), stood out for their intensive activities. It was also clear that a number of people, involved in human rights activities linked to their own environment, such as students, peasant farmers and some judicial officers, fit in the defenders' definition.

C. Delegation's composition and activities

The international fact-finding mission mandated by the FIDH and the OMCT in the framework of their joint programme, the Observatory for the protection of human rights defenders, was conducted from June 26 to July 3, 2004, with the help and support of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO).

The Observatory's delegation was composed of: Mr. Arnold Tsunga, president of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights), Mr. Mabassa Fall, FIDH permanent representative before the African Union, and Miss Carole Berrih, FIDH Africa department officer.

The delegation could meet with the following civil society representatives and government officials:

Civil society representatives:

- Pr. Mesfin Wolde Mariam, president, and Mr. Ambachew Semma, secretary general of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO).
- Mr. Samuel Hailegiorgis, director of the Ethiopian Bar Association (EBA).
- Mr. Kifle Mulat, president of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association (EFJA).
- Mr. Abate Angore, member of the executive board of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA).
- Mr. Amare Aregawi, general manager and editor-in-chief of the newspaper The Reporter.
- The personal assistant to Mrs. Meaza Ashenafi, director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers' Association (EWLA).
- Mrs. Adey Abeb, head of the information and management department, and Mr. Dereje Balcha, head of the networking, policy, research and advocacy department of the Christian Relief and Development Association (CRDA).
- Dr. Yared Tilabun Damte, president of the Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture.
- Mr. Abebe Worke Wolde Yohannes, human rights lawyer, EBA and EHRCO member. - Pr. Andreas, Addis Ababa University and UNESCO vice president in Ethiopia.


- Mrs. Josette Dallant, Ambassador, French Embassy in Ethiopia.
- Mr. William Flens, Second Secretary, US Embassy
- Mr. Bereket Simon, Minister of Information
- Mrs. Genet Zewde, Minister of Education

The delegation regrets that it was unable to meet with several other government officials, such as the Prime Minister, the Minister of Federal Affairs, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, although their offices were contacted prior to the mission. Some of them, like the Minister of Federal Affairs, openly refused to receive the delegation because of recent OMCT reports on Ethiopia that they considered unfounded, while others did not reply despite numerous calls. Others accepted to meet the delegation only after its departure.


1 Mr. Kifle Mulat, president of the Ethiopian Free Journalists' Association (EFJA).

2 In this regard, the expulsion of three American NGOs, namely the International Republican Institute (IRI), the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), by Ethiopian authorities on March 30, 2005, on the alleged ground that they were not registered as they were giving training and civic education to voters, is of a particular concern.

3 See Annex 3.

4 The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders provides, inter alia, for the right of everyone individually and in association with others to fight for the promotion and protection of the fundamental human rights nationally and internationally. It further places a responsibility on the state to take legislative, judicial, administrative and other appropriate measures to promote the understanding by all persons under its jurisdiction of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. See Annex 1.

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